UAS & Robotics

Air Force looks to double its number of drone squadrons

AF Reaper pilots training

Student pilots train on a Reaper at Holloman Air Force Base, N.M.

The Air Force wants to double the number of squadrons it has for flying remotely piloted aircraft, while adding 2,500 to 3,500 airmen to the crews operating drones.

Gen. Hawk Carlisle, commander of the Air Combat Command, also has ordered his staff to define career tracks RPA operators and maintenance crews—both officers and enlisted personnel—and study the methods for selecting and promoting RPA officers.

The recommendations grew out of the command’s Culture and Process Improvement Program (CPIP), an ongoing effort to improve conditions for the Air Force’s MQ-1B Predator and MQ9 Reaper crews, which officials have previously described as being stretched to the limit.

"Our RPA enterprise was born in combat and recently surpassed 20 years of service, many of which were executed at surge levels," Carlisle said in a statement. "We owe it to our airmen to remove the daily stressors that are responsible for the challenging environment they are operating in."

The Air Force had planned to cut back on the number of unmanned missions, called Combat Air Patrols, following the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the rise of ISIS in particular changes those plans. The Defense Department had planned to reduce the number of CAPs—which provide 24-hour coverage of a given area and involve pilots and ground crews for four Predators or Reapers— from 65 to 55. Because of the demand, however, that number was held at 60, although the Air Force said it only had the resources for 55.

In August, the Pentagon announced plans to increase the number of CAPS to 90 by 2019, with the Air Force continuing to operate 60 of them, the Army flying up to 16, and Special Forces as many as four. The remaining CAPs would be strictly surveillance flights handled by contractors. (Although those flights would not have strike capability, that plan has raised legal questions about whether the flights would still make civilians part of the “kill chain.”)

Meanwhile, the Air Force has been instituting measures designed to help recruit and retain drone pilots, including pay increases and bonuses of $15,000 a year beginning in fiscal 2016. 

The changes growing out of the CPIP also could include creating a new wing in order to normalize RPA operations relative to other weapons systems; standardizing the squadron, group and wing structure; and assigning RPA units in other locations.

"As we strategically analyze the RPA community, we need to take a hard look at our operating locations," Carlisle said. "Expanding our RPA basing to potential sites such as Davis-Monthan [Air Force Base, Ariz.], Langley [AFB, Va.], and a few overseas locations is a discussion we need to entertain as we stand up a new wing. We would look to take advantage of the synergy between RPA operations and command and control or intelligence processing, exploitation and dissemination nodes."

The Air Force won’t be able to make those changes in a vacuum, of course, and Carlisle said he plans to work with DOD, the White House and Congress on any changes.

"Ultimately, CPIP is about establishing a coherent, Air Force-wide strategic plan that enables us to continue to provide this incredible capability to the joint force by moving the RPA community toward the sustainment model we've established for other Air Force weapon systems,” he said.

About the Author

Kevin McCaney is a former editor of Defense Systems and GCN.

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